Christians Don't Tithe

We give to promote equality.

Net or gross, that was the question. Do we tithe 10% off of our net income or our gross income?

Tithing itself was never questioned in my church growing up, just what we tithed or how much. The less spiritual, of course, would say net because God couldn't possibly require more than our Christian nation with all its religious tax subsidies. The super spiritual would say gross because all we had was his already so deductions did not apply.

The spiritual outcasts cleverly eluded monetary giving by defining tithes as either time, treasure, or talent and conveniently focusing on the first and last. They angered a lot of people mainly because no one knew how to refute their position.

Few Christians understand the origins of tithing let alone the specific stipulations involved. From childhood, we're simply taught that God expects us to give 10%. Some parents handed out dollar bills each Sunday to simulate the practice while others deducted the tithe from allowances before giving them out. It's just what Christians do.

Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose of the tithe was never really fleshed out. It was rote spirituality with little value to our relationship with God other than checking off one of the boxes that kept him happy. Had we studied the ancient practice more fully, we might have discovered the true power of it. And that we weren't even doing it right.

Tithing comes from the Hebrew word ma'aser which means "tenth". And that's about the extent of Christian teaching on the cultural background: the word means tenth so we give 10%. And it's true that the Israelites actually did give a tenth of what they had--they just did it more than once. In fact, there were three tithes collected, two annually and one every three years. Which means that the biblical practice didn't require 10% but about 23.3%.

The average American was taxed between 15-25% in 2015, so imagine taking another 23.3% off of that (assuming you're super spiritual). If you made $50,000 last year that means your family would only see $30,000 of it. You might as well be living in a socialist nation. Especially when you realize why those tithes were collected.

The first tithe was given to the Levites, who were the priestly tribe of Israel charged with maintaining God's house among the people. The second tithe was dedicated to the many feasts prescribed throughout the year and, as such, was primarily given in the form of food. The third tithe, given every third year, was directed again to the Levites but also the foreigners, orphans, and widows as well.

Obviously, the church today is not ancient Israel and we do not have a tribe of priests in our midst. But since the Levites represented the maintenance of religious functions, tithing was appropriated and the local church was equated with the tribe as the focal point of giving. It also didn't hurt that there isn't a single New Testament prescription on how to give.

Thus, Christian teaching about giving focuses on motive and skirts the fact that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever commanded tithing by guilting people into cheerfulness ("God loves a cheerful giver"). And by adopting the ancient practice of tithing rather than understanding its purpose, we've missed the fact that Christian giving is not about how or what we give as much as to whom.

The reason God gave the tithes to the Levites is because, unlike all the other tribes, they had no inheritance in the land he had given them. Their inheritance was being the only tribe allowed to manage his house. In an agrarian society such as ancient Israel was, having no land was the equivalent of being jobless and homeless. Their priestly duties produced no living and left them with no time to pursue one. They relied on the tithes.

Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from gospel. In other words, part of our giving should include supporting our pastors. Too many are opting for a bi-vocational ministry because they're simply not making enough, but the pastorate is not a part-time job. We don't give them a stipend or modest salary to supplement their income; we give them their living because they shouldn't have to get everything they need anywhere else.

The tithe for feasts also supports the idea that the pastor shouldn't have to cover the costs of the ministry. Whether you believe in seven sacraments or two, the church body foots the bill for the bread and cup, not the pastor.

The third tithe is a bit more nuanced. Supporting the Levites a second time sounds redundant, but the weird part is that they're associated with foreigners, orphans, and widows. However, like Levites, many foreigners didn't have any land as it was divided among the Israelites. Likewise, orphans and widows didn't have families which at the time was just as financially unfortunate as having no land. In short, they were poor. And all four groups represented those who couldn't support themselves.

The first-century church wasn't all that dissimilar from the model of ancient Israeli society. They sold all of their property and possessions and distributed them among each other equally. Early church leadership specialized in food programs for the congregants because they couldn't even get through the Eucharist without some going hungry while others ate to excess.

Paul reiterated to the church at Corinth that the purpose of their giving was equality. They had pledged to help the churches in Macedonia a year earlier but had not yet done so. Paul reminded them that he did not wish to see them in poverty, but rather that they would share their abundance while they had it so that others would reciprocate when they were in need. He never commands them, but he does emphasize cheerful generosity as a confession of the gospel (a far cry from the traditional guilt-trip interpretation).

Christian giving isn't about percentages or open palms with forced smiles. It isn't even about testing obedience or teaching trust, though those things can certainly accompany it. Christians give to foster equality among the body. And that means we give first and foremost to other Christians in need.

Nice facilities and other ministry paraphernalia are absolutely worthless if there are hungry families attending your church--including your pastor. As Paul said, we must not grow weary of doing good, especially to those in the household of faith. Let's be sure that we're defining good by God's standards (like helping people), not the world's.

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photo credit: RachelEllen Treasures via photopin (license)

Comments

  1. Nice post. I agree. Tithing is not part of the new covenant. The fact that so many Christians think they must tithe shows how people will “do as their told” by religious leaders. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say after a sermon of tithing, “Ooh, the Holy Spirit really touched me during that sermon. I really need to start tithing!”



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  2. Thanks for standing up for the truth about tithing.

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